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Family trauma increases likeliness of youth homelessness

Each year, more than four million young people in the United States experience some form of homelessness. Identifying exactly when and why that happens could open the door to better solutions.

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A new report from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago seeks to do that, tracing homelessness to factors such as family trauma or the death of a parent or caretaker. Based on in-depth interviews with 215 people between the ages of 13 and 25, the research illuminates some of the root causes of housing insecurity around the country.

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“Youth with lived experience of homelessness are a critical source of information about how to address this crisis,” said lead researcher Gina Samuels, an associate professor in UChicago’s School of Social Service Administration who studies how young adults are shaped by foster care and adoption. “We learned from them that their housing instability starts when they are young, and under specific conditions—such as earlier disruptions of home and stability due to family conflict or entering foster care.

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“With that knowledge, we now know when and where we have to do more to intervene.”

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Approximately 35% of youth surveyed in the report had experienced the death of at least one parent or primary caregiver. In addition, 44% identified their entrance into foster care as the beginning of their housing instability—complicating the popular perception of foster homes as a more stable environment.

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Almost half (46%) experienced discrimination from members of their family or household, especially LGBTQ and multiracial youth. Nearly a third (31%) navigated some sort of mental health issue, while 21% mentioned substance abuse as a barrier to obtaining or keeping housing.

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The report drew from interviews in Cook County, Philadelphia County, San Diego County, Travis County (Texas) and Walla Walla County (Washington). It is the latest in a series of briefs on youth homelessness from Chapin Hall, which was founded in 1985 to improve the lives of children through rigorous analysis of data-driven research. Previous Chapin Hall studies found that one in 10 young adults experience homelessness in a given year, and that LGBTQ youth do so at twice the rate of their peers.

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Samuels co-authored the new report with Asst. Prof. Shantá R. Robinson, a fellow SSA faculty member; Sonali Patel, a policy fellow at Chapin Hall; Christine Cerven, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego; and Susanna R. Curry, an assistant professor at California State University, Sacramento. Samuels also helps lead the Voices of Youth Count, an innovative, national policy research initiative that seeks to better understand and support homeless youth in the country.

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The report includes recommendations for lawmakers to better address complex family-based traumas and account for the mobility of homeless youth, who often move in and out of their hometowns without leaving the state. The authors added specific amendments to the text of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which was first passed in 1974 to establish a federal definition for homeless youth. Last updated in May 2018, the law is due for Congressional reauthorization this year.

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“The interviews in this report provide invaluable insight into how and why young people fall into homelessness,” said Bryan Samuels, executive director of Chapin Hall. “The vast majority of the young people we surveyed had experienced trauma and instability at a young age, whether it was entering the foster care system or losing a parent.

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“The results reveal clear moments when child welfare officials and social services agencies can intervene to prevent youth homelessness from happening in the first place.”

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Researchers pioneer method to purify water using solar energy

As the global population grows, fresh water supplies are more precious than ever. While scientists and engineers know how to purify water, making those methods sustainable and energy efficient is another question.

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One promising approach is solar-driven distillation, or solar steam generation, which can help us get fresh water from wastewater or seawater. Researchers have used this method to successfully distill small batches of purified water, but they are still searching for a way to do this on a large scale.

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Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and UChicago-affiliated Argonne National Laboratory were part of a team that developed a pioneering new method of solar steam generation that could help bring this technology into the real world. The materials can be grown on top of wood, fabric or sponges in an easy, one-step process, and show promise for large-scale manufacturing.

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“Solar steam generation techniques are still mostly focused on lab use now,” said Zijing Xia, a graduate student at Pritzker Molecular Engineering and lead author of the research. “We want to find an easy way to fabricate solar steam generators at relatively low cost.”

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The results of their innovative work were recently published in the journal Advanced Materials Interfaces.

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In the search for solar steam systems, researchers have already tried various materials which convert light to heat, such as carbon materials, plasmonic metals and semiconductors. But many of these options have relatively low efficiency, among other challenges, and so the search continues for a truly transformative method.

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A high-performance solar steam generator will ideally combine several characteristics. It should be buoyant on water, be able to absorb a broad spectrum of light, convert light to heat efficiently and be able to transfer that heat to water. Unfortunately, many previously studied methods lack the porous structure needed to facilitate the heat transfer to water.

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“Most existing methods cannot be easily engineered to produce steam-generating devices with both arbitrary control over the shape and high photothermal efficiency,” Xia said.

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What sets Xia’s method apart is the use of a porphyrin covalent organic framework, or POF. A newly discovered class of materials, POFs can grow uniformly on the surface of a variety of materials with different levels of porosity, and they show high performance for water evaporation. POFs also have unique light-harvesting characteristics beneficial for new applications.

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In the lab, POFs successfully grew on the inner and outer surfaces of every tested material. And every template showed favorable photothermal properties, indicating that POF-based materials are promising candidates for solar steam generation. The POF membrane was able to capture more than 95% of light across the majority of the spectrum of sunlight.

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The most promising result of the research, Xia said, was the POFs’ ability to grow at the surface of many different kinds of materials, including membranes, fabrics, sponges and wood. The wood showed particularly strong performance, with researchers measuring roughly 80% light-to-steam conversion efficiency.

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The ability of POFs to grow on many types of materials makes them easily adaptable for use with locally available materials. This versatility, coupled with the easy, one-step fabrication process, could make the method practical for large-scale production.

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The POF-based approach proved highly effective in a lab setting, and the research team plans to conduct further experiments outside the lab to observe the practical performance of POFs.

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So far, the research suggests POFs could help drive the sustainable water purification systems of the future.

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“POF-based interface engineering design shows promise for large-scale purification methods, and it could also be used for desalination, wastewater treatment and beyond,” Xia said.

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Other authors of the paper include PME graduate students Ruben Z. Waldman and Chao Zhang, PME professor and Argonne scientist Shrayesh Patel, and Argonne scientist and PME fellow Seth Darling. Additional authors include Zhaowei Chen of Argonne, Hao-Cheng Yang of Sun Yat-sen University and Yusen Zhao of UCLA.

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Citation: “Porphyrin Covalent Organic Framework (POF)-Based Interface Engineering for Solar Steam Generation.” Zijing Xia et al. Advanced Materials Interfaces. Doi: 10.1002/admi.201900254

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Funding: The Advanced Materials for Energy-Water Systems (AMEWS) Center

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—Story first appeared on the Pritzker Molecular Engineering website.

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Monarch butterflies bred in captivity may lose ability to migrate

Monarch butterflies purchased from a commercial breeder did not fly in a southward direction, even in offspring raised outdoors, in a new study conducted by scientists at the University of Chicago. Wild-caught monarchs bred indoors under simulated outdoor conditions also did not orient south, suggesting that captive breeding disrupts the monarch’s famous annual migratory behavior.

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The National Wildlife Federation estimates that the North American monarch population has declined 90% over the last two decades. As the number of butterflies that reaches their winter habitats in California and Mexico dwindles, monarch enthusiasts have turned to a variety of conservation efforts, including captive breeding and release of the butterflies throughout the summer and autumn. However, the new study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that these well-intentioned practices may not have the desired effect.

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“We hope this will be an avenue into understanding how monarchs are losing migration,” said Marcus Kronforst, associate professor of ecology and evolution at UChicago and the study’s senior author. “These monarchs have been brought into captivity and prevented from migrating for many generations, and they have genetically lost migration. It’s a microcosm for what’s happening naturally.”

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Kronforst is a leading researcher on the origins of biological diversity, from individual genes to entire communities, using tropical butterflies as model species. In a recent series of studies, his lab showed how specific genes control wing colorpatterns and mimicry across several butterfly species.

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A ‘flight simulator’ for butterflies

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Ayse Tenger-Trolander, a PhD student in Kronforst’s lab and lead author of the new study, ordered several adult monarch butterflies from a commercial supplier and placed them in an outdoor garden on the rooftop of a building on the UChicago campus. The butterflies were enclosed in mesh cages but otherwise exposed to natural light, temperature and moisture.

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Monarchs breed during the summer and autumn, the autumn generation being the one that migrates. Tenger-Trolander collected eggs from the commercially purchased adults after they mated and raised them to adult butterflies. That summer generation then became the parents of the autumn generation.

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Tenger-Trolander then tested this autumn generation in a “flight simulator” to see the predominant direction they fly. The simulator is an open-ended, metal cylinder, like a pipe standing on one end. The butterfly is connected to a rod near the top opening of the cylinder by a metal pin, or tether, attached to its abdomen. This makes the butterflies fly in place inside the cylinder, but they are free to rotate 360 degrees. The rotating dial records the direction of the butterfly every two milliseconds and saves the data to a computer.

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Butterflies that exhibit migratory behavior should fly predominantly toward the south inside this flight simulator. The locally captured monarchs raised in the same gardens did just that. However, Tenger-Trolander saw that the generation of butterflies bred from the commercial monarchs didn’t fly in a dominant direction.

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Tenger-Trolander also performed a second set of experiments starting with only wild-caught monarchs and rearing the offspring completely inside. She tried to mimic outdoor conditions by adjusting temperature and the hours of daylight, but as a group, these butterflies did not show signs of migratory flight either. Some individuals did fly pointing south, but as a group they did not collectively fly predominantly in a southward direction. In fact, taking a chrysalis that had been developing outdoors and bringing it inside just as it was about to emerge also “broke” the migratory behavior in the group as a whole.

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“I thought there was no way that would matter, but it did,” said Tenger-Trolander. “We know there are many hobbyists and enthusiast breeders who are trying to do their best husbandry and avoid buying from commercial breeders. But there could be an issue with the way they’re raising them indoors too.”

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Differences buried in the genome

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Several populations of monarchs have dispersed throughout the world to Central and South America, the Caribbean, southern Europe, northern Africa and across the Pacific Ocean to Australia, but none of these new populations migrate like those in North America. Kronforst and Tenger-Trolander also studied the genetic makeup of the commercially bred butterflies to see how they differ from typical North American monarchs. Is the reason the commercial monarchs don’t migrate because they originated from a newer, non-migrating population?

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The genetic analysis showed that the commercially bred butterflies did originate from North America, but they are genetically different enough to count as distinct population, separate from North American or any of the other groups that made it to another continent. Kronforst said he believes the loss of migration lies in these genetic discrepancies.

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“We can’t point to a single genetic change that did it because there are lots of them,” he said. “But we think somewhere buried in the genome are changes that have broken it.”

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to list the North American monarch as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Any conservation efforts are welcome, the researchers say, and hobbyists raising caterpillars in their gardens or elementary school science classes releasing butterflies into the wild are great ways to engage the public. But the new study shows that however well-intentioned, monarch enthusiasts should remember that the migratory behavior of these beloved butterflies is incredibly fragile.

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“It looks like buying monarchs to raise and release doesn’t contribute to the migratory population, and raising them indoors probably isn’t helpful either,” Kronforst said. “If you want to grow milkweed in your garden and raise monarchs you find around your house, just don’t take them inside. If you keep them outdoors, they should be totally fine.”

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—Article originally appeared on the UChicago Medicine website

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Going nuts! Alum’s peanut-driven animations charm audiences

Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community.

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“Are the peanuts going to eat the fork?”

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That possibility weighed heavily on one little girl during a recent Saturday afternoon at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Sitting among other children and parents, she had just finished watching Hank the Cave Peanut, an animated short in which a pith-helmeted legume leads a successful hunt for an untamed fork.

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For director Ron McAdow, AB’71, the MoMA screening and Q&A marked the latest stop on a filmmaking journey that began at the University of Chicago, where he’d turned his apartment dining room into a makeshift studio.

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McAdow didn’t enroll at UChicago with plans for a career in animation, regarding the campus as a place where his “serious academic interests could be nurtured.” What unfolded was a process of elimination. He liked to write but didn’t want to major in English. He was drawn to anthropology and the social sciences, but a student job in the sociology department convinced him not to pursue academia.

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Still, the 69-year-old reflects fondly on the intellectual community he found at UChicago. As a student in the College, McAdow found joy in learning not only from preeminent scholars, but from discussions with his fellow students. For the self-described “generalist,” the interdisciplinary curriculum helped spark the ideas in his filmmaking.

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“I was so interested in culture,” said McAdow, who graduated with a degree in tutorial studies. “It was natural for me to do a coming-of-age kind of story.”

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Back home in Champaign, Illinois, McAdow spent a summer filling potholes with Kevin Brown, a high school friend who had begun exploring object animation with a Super 8 camera. When the two were laid off, they got serious about messing around with Brown’s new toy. That fall, McAdow returned to UChicago with a used camera of his own.

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Soon, he decided to try making animated films for children. He experimented with coins and other household objects in his tabletop animations, but peanuts became the anthropomorph of choice “because they were so charismatic.” McAdow would open the shells carefully, filling in a bit of sand before gluing them back together as characters.

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“You didn’t have to paint any eyes because people just project a face onto them,” he said.

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The Super 8 movies he made in his apartment on Hyde Park Boulevard became a hit on the student party circuit. After McAdow graduated, he and Brown moved to Holliston, Massachusetts, creating short segments for the television show Jabberwocky.

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McAdow followed up on Jabberwocky with two longer independent shorts: Hank the Cave Peanut (1974), which led to a gig on the math-oriented program Infinity Factory, and Captain Silas (1977). He distributed the films himself to libraries and nonprofits, one of which later sold copies to MoMA. Last summer, the museum purchased a digital version from McAdow to use in their screenings.

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During the Q&A in February, he was delighted by the children’s wonder and suspension of disbelief. Questions like the one from the girl who worried about the fork confirmed that his low-tech productions could still resonate with modern viewers.

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“I thought it was very sweet,” said McAdow, who assured the girl that the peanuts would domesticate the fork as a working animal. “It’s touching, and it makes the storyteller feel connected to the audience.”

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McAdow still worked with children even after he stopped animating peanuts, spending much of the 1970s teaching teaching English, math, science and history to elementary and middle schoolers. He continued to stoke his creative fires through writing: a newspaper column, canoeing guides to the Sudbury and Charles rivers in Massachusetts—Hank includes a nod to McAdow’s lifelong passion for paddling—and two novels.

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A subsequent career in educational software kept him abreast of the latest digital tools. He now applies those to creating animated backdrops to the stories he tells each fall at a wildlife sanctuary near his home in Massachusetts—an alternative for “families that want to do something besides go to the mall the day after Thanksgiving.” His latest tale, “The Sky Worm,” is peanut-free, and no forks are harmed.

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“As long I have all my marbles,” McAdow said, “I’ll be telling stories in one medium or another.”

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——Adapted from a story that first appeared in the University of Chicago Magazine

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Using human genome, scientists build CRISPR for RNA to open pathways for medicine

Less than a decade ago, biology underwent one of those once-in-a-generation events that shakes up a scientific field, when the discovery of gene editing technology called CRISPR/Cas-9 made it possible to precisely alter the sequence of DNA in a living being.

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But while DNA may be the raw blueprints for life, RNA is the architect—translating those ideas into reality for the cell through proteins and regulation. While CRISPR systems that target RNA have recently been discovered, none offers a single clear solution.

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A group of scientists from the University of Chicago has announced a breakthrough method to alter RNA—and instead of using a protein from bacteria, like CRISPR, the new system is built out of parts from the human genome. Announced June 20 in Cell, the discovery could open new pathways for treating diseases or injuries by temporarily altering how the genetic template is carried out in the cell.

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“People had delayed targeting RNA for a long time because it’s so complex in how it works,” said study author Bryan Dickinson, an associate professor of chemistry at UChicago. “But I think now we’re realizing that complexity is an opportunity to figure out how to exploit and change those pathways. In principle, you could make even more dramatic changes to the cell than with DNA, and now we finally have the tools to do so.”

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Even as DNA-targeting CRISPR methods begin their initial clinical trials in humans, scientists have become increasingly interested in equivalent systems for RNA. An RNA-targeting method that can safely be applied to humans would be a valuable complement to CRISPR, Dickinson said.

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“If you imagine the universe of diseases that CRISPR is going to correct, it’ll be really important ones, but only those that are based off of one single mutation in your DNA,” said Dickinson, whose work tries to create functional molecules that lead to biological breakthroughs. “There are many more diseases out there with multiple causes in the cell, which may be much more difficult to understand—and there will also be those where the risks associated with changing someone’s DNA permanently are just too high.”

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Because the effects of RNA alteration are temporary rather than permanent, an RNA-CRISPR is inherently less risky, because doctors can simply stop the treatment if there are intolerable side effects. It could also be used for things like briefly boosting a person’s system to accelerate wound healing: “We know what to do for that—you would encourage processes for cell growth and proliferation,” Dickinson said. “But those are the same things that cause cancer, so you could never do that at the DNA level.”

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But translating these microbial systems into therapeutics is going to be challenging, he said. “RNA-targeting drugs need to be continually administered, so the foreign nature of CRISPR/Cas systems is going to create an immune backlash when applied to humans.”

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This presents key roadblocks for natural CRISPR systems, which Dickinson’s team realized it had an opportunity to correct by reengineering the whole system from scratch.

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Because it’s a very large protein, CRISPR is generally too big to use the most common delivery system to insert genetic material into cells—“phages,” which originate from tiny viruses. This is a problem, especially if you need to deliver them continually. More critically, because CRISPR comes from a microbe, there are significant concerns about the human immune system reacting to it.

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Instead, the team broke down CRISPR into its components based on what each part does, and looked for human versions of those proteins that did equivalent tasks. Then they cobbled those together into a cohesive whole—which is smaller than CRISPR, and made out of human material.

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“Although there’s still a lot of work to do, the crazy thing is it actually works,” Dickinson said.

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Their system succeeded in altering RNA in tests in the lab. The scientists plan to improve the system at a few points where the performance is not as good as CRISPR, they said, but they’re encouraged by the early results.

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“As we learn more, you could imagine targeting multiple RNAs in different ways, and doing more complex reprogramming of the cell at the RNA level,” Dickinson said. “It’s a really exciting field right now.”

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The first author was graduate student Simone Rauch; other co-authors were visiting scholar Michael Srienc, postdoctoral fellow Huiqing Zhou, high school student Emily He and graduate student Zijie Zhang.

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The scientists are working with the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago to advance this discovery.

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Citation: “Programmable RNA-guided RNA effector proteins built from human parts.” Rauch et al, Cell, June 20, 2019. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2019.05.049

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Funding: University of Chicago, National Institutes of Health, Chicago Fellow Program.

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